Your life is measured in years – a series of days that blend seamlessly into one another. History books tell tales in numbers. Years and dates remembered and looked on in retrospect as preordained in some unfathomable way. Winners are lauded and losers forgotten and somewhere in the cracks the rest of us fall, remembered solely by those who knew us. In the grand scheme of things, whatever the history books will say, your life is measured by the people you touch, the lives you improve, and the joy you’ve been able to squeeze from not only the great moments, but during the hardest of heartaches.
The history books would say that my mother’s life was measured in years. Seventy seven years, eleven days. October 9, 1938 – October 20, 2015.
The truth is that her life was measured in between those dates. And it expands – her life is measured by every positive impact made by those she touched, infinitum. People look so much for some bit of immortality – a grave marker, a statue, or a scar on the planet so after you leave people will know you were here; so your life has meaning beyond yourself. The thing is, my mom knew her life had meaning beyond herself, regardless of bank account or accomplishment.
Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer about four years ago. We sat in her doctor’s office waiting for her regular GP to come back in. When he did, he stammered, with tears in his eyes.
My mother grinned at him and said, “So what you’re trying to tell me is that I can have all the doughnuts I want.”
She wound up consoling him. As we walked into his front waiting area, she said, “Fuck the oncologist. I’m calling Colonial Life before they get wind of the results!”
There was a patient sitting in the chairs who turned about three shades of gray. Sometimes people don’t get our humor.
You think this is a story about breast cancer, but it’s not. The oncologist wanted to give her a mastectomy. She refused. She decided to treat with hormone therapy, flaxseed oil, and cottage cheese. They gave her a year and a half – she didn’t actually tell me that until we were somewhere closing in on the three year mark.
Last spring she wound up in the emergency room. We knew it was going to be bad before they gave us any results; though I figured it would be that the breast cancer metastasized. It didn’t. It was a completely different, non-related cancer. She actually beat the first one. With flaxseed oil. That was my mother – doer of the impossible.
We were, of course, cracking jokes the entire time. My mother was more ring leader than bystander. Apparently families getting this kind of news are supposed to be weepy. The ER doc told my mom that it was the best hospital she could be in for cancer treatment.
Doc: There’s no better place for cancer treatment in the state. You’re in very good hands. We treated Cardinal Bernadine.
Mom: You know he died, right?
My brother: That’s not great marketing, Doc. Don’t put that on the brochures.
It really wouldn’t look that good as a slogan: “We treated a dead guy.”
She had to stay in the hospital that time for about a week. The doctor told her they’d be moving her upstairs and she asked if he would still be able to be her doctor.
ER Doc: No. You’ll have a whole team up there. I stay with ER patients.
Me: That’s just his excuse. He wants to get back to the normal patients.
ER Doc: Not at all. You guys are the most fun I’ve had in the ER in 20 years.
My Mom: Oh, you’re not trying hard enough. There’s got to be plenty of stuff to laugh about in an ER.
But that’s the way she was. Every nurse loved her. Every doctor adored her. I’ve probably heard the word “feisty” more in the last week than I ever have in my life. It’s a pretty good descriptive.
I have a million mom stories. She was funny and brilliant. I have literally seen her give her last dollar to a perfect stranger. She’d go out of her way to help people she didn’t even know and our house was pretty much open to any friend or wayward soul that needed. She was just that way.
When I sat down to write this, I had a bunch of out of this world anecdotes – because her life was anything but ordinary. She didn’t want to be remembered sick. She probably would have liked to be remembered as the daring 15 year old who cut her hair in a duck tail before it was the style. The girl who taught dance at Arthur Murray, took a train to Chicago at 17 without knowing a soul and stayed for the rest of her life. She was the young woman who worked a dice table and stole a paddy wagon because her girlfriend was getting arrested. The lady who, without a high school diploma, got herself a job as a copywriter at a prestigious ad agency, wrote jingles for the White Sox sports casters, worked for the Chicago Tribune, ran a number of resume offices, worked for the governor’s office, and was a Director of Public Relations. She was the grandma who drank too much dago red on Christmas Eve and decided to try out her grandkids’ skateboards.
She lived a pretty full life. But mostly she just didn’t think any door was closed to her, and she was good enough that she was right.
She was rushed to the hospital on Sunday by ambulance. The tumor had grown to the point where it was interfering with her vocal chords. In the middle of the night they called to tell me that they would need to intubate. At this point, the doctors were suggesting that they could give her a trach. This would allow her minimal time, as the cancer was too advanced and any treatment would simply be palliative. My mom opted not to have a trach.
We got to spend Monday with her. She was completely herself, though she had a tube down her throat so she couldn’t talk. We got her paper and a pen. She put it to some pretty good use. Telling stories and making everyone laugh. She also schooled her nurse on politics a bit.
Without the trach, if they extubated it was expected that she would pass fairly quickly. She told them to pull it. Those were her actual words. We had the evening with her on Monday and then most of the day on Tuesday. She was surrounded by her children and my Aunt Jerry was able to come in from Michigan to spend that last day with her. Well, you all already know the ending here.
The thing is that people talk about courage and they think of the biggest, baddest fucker on the walk. I’ve never met anyone stronger than my 100 pound mother, calling her own shots from her hospital bed. I have the papers she was writing on for those two days. Like the meeting minutes of her last thoughts, in her own writing. A lot of it is her part of conversations. Some of it is her having my brother play her lottery numbers. We joked that it would be just her luck to win now. And she replied: “I want it for you guys.”
Here are a few more:
“I love you all sooo much.”
“I’m really sorry for putting you all through this!”
“They’re just trying to shut me up!” (replying to the doctor explaining the tube down her throat)
“This is tough on you guys, but I’m good with it.”
“Only good stories and laughter at my wake. This is MY party. I will have it rock.”